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2011 Grants - Zimmerman
Chronic Pain and Cognitive Dysfunction in Older Adults
Molly E. Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
Bronx, New York
2011 New Investigator Research Grant
As people age, chronic pain becomes an increasingly common disorder. Scientists have identified chronic pain as a possible risk factor for several pathologies of aging, including cognitive loss. Pain is experienced through the activities of nerve endings called nociceptors, or pain receptors. Chronic nociceptor activity has been shown to induce changes in brain structure and function that may contribute to cognitive loss or dementia.
Molly E. Zimmerman, Ph.D., and colleagues have found that chronic pain can double the risk of dementia in older adults living independently. Using an imaging procedure called structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers also observed that chronic pain was associated with reductions in the volume and metabolic activity of the hippocampus. This area of the brain is closely involved in learning and memory, and it is one of the first brain regions affected by Alzheimer's disease.
For their current grant, Dr. Zimmerman and colleagues expect to confirm and extend their earlier findings. They will recruit a group of about 300 older, cognitively-healthy participants from a long-term study of aging called the Einstein Aging Study. These participants will receive pain and cognition assessments, as well as MRI scans of the brain. About 200 of the participants will then receive several follow-up assessments over a one-year period. Such testing will enable researchers to track the progression of chronic pain in their participants over time, and to gain a better understanding of how long-term pain is associated with cognitive decline.